This post will be very emotional for many people. It’s a really sad an terrible question to raise, but I think we need to talk about this: How can parents leave a child in a hot car? I hope you guys stick through this post and leave comments that are compassionate and kind.
When my brother was three, the woman driving his preschool carpool left him in the back of her station wagon, went home, parked the car, and left him there.
Hours later, I came home from elementary school on the bus to find my grandmother, who watched us for a brief time while my mom was teaching, and no brother.
“Where’s Geoff?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “He never came home.”
Now, before this, my parents had no reason not to trust my grandmother with our care. But even I, as a second or third grader, knew this was not right. I called my parents who rushed home after calling the carpool driver.
“I dropped him off,” she said. “I’m sure of it.”
She did not, however, go outside to actually check.
My father drove to her house and found my brother, alive but dehydrated and overheated, still in the way back of the station wagon, waiting for someone to let him out.
This story scared me a little back then. Now, with our ever-present Facebook feeds and 24-hour news updates, it TERRIFIES me. Because it is a lot more common for children to be left in hot cars these days.
And unlike our close call, the outcome is typically deadly.
Why Are Children Left in Hot Cars More Frequently Now?
In a strange twist of irony, the car seat laws which have saved many children’s lives are perhaps the largest reason more kids are left in hot cars. I remember distinctly riding up front with no booster seat when I was my children’s ages now. According to the recommended practices, my kids are all in the back seats, with full car seats or boosters. It was a lot harder to forget a child who was in the front seat next to you, or even in a forward facing infant seat.
Let’s take a look at the stats: From 1990 to 1992 there were only 11 deaths of children in a hot car. In 2016 alone that number is at 26 so far, double the number from 2015. (Read more about these facts HERE.)
Out of sight, out of mind is a really horrific but apt description. Car seats and stricter regulations have provided a more safe drive for children, but place them further from sight.
But Seriously, HOW Can Parents Leave a Child in a Hot Car?
Okay, but really—having your child a foot or two from you still isn’t FAR. What exactly is happening with this phenomenon of parents forgetting their child in a hot car?
Think about the last time you drove to your work or somewhere that you travel on a weekly or daily basis. Do you remember much about the drive? When driving familiar routes, we typically go on a kind of autopilot.
This is a real, physiological thing. A part of the brain called the basal ganglia controls our almost involuntary actions. In some cases it can in some ways override the more conscious parts of our brain. (More on this HERE.)
What Factors Make Forgetting a Child in a Hot Car More Likely?
In many of the cases the parents or caretakers are doing something routine, like driving to work. But tossed into that routine is a change. Perhaps the child, normally loud and active, falls asleep in the back. Or maybe this parent is typically not the one responsible for driving the child. Any small changes in routine can set up the situation where the basal ganglia autopilot part of the brain overrides the “new” or “different” information.
A close friend confided in me that she left her infant in the car once. She and her husband were looking at new homes with a realtor. Typically all of their children, not just her baby would be with them, making noise. But they were with a babysitter and their infant, rear-facing, fell asleep and was silent in the back.
“We went inside and spent thirty minutes looking at the house,” she said, tears in her eyes. “We didn’t even know until we got back in the car and saw him that it happened at all.”
It was not a terribly warm day and he was a little sweaty, but totally fine. They were lucky.
She had not told anyone else about this and I understand why completely. For the judgement hurled at the parents who leave children in the car is quick and unforgiving.
Why Don’t We Think It Could Happen to Us?
The most common thing to read in the comments on an article about a child left in a hot car is this statement: “I would NEVER leave my child in a hot car.”
There is a sense of disbelief in how someone else could do this and a complete confidence that this would never happen to ME.
And yet…if you read the majority of these stories, they are not stories of neglectful parents who leave their child in the car on purpose, thinking they’ll just spend a few minutes away from the car. Most of these stories COULD BE YOU.
I think the worst thing that we can do when it comes to preventing these horrific events is to believe that it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen to YOU. So many parents who have left their children in hot cars have later said, “I never thought it could happen to me.”
I think we should banish this sense of thinking we are better from our minds. Not only does it heap burning coals on someone who is likely completely consumed in a fire of guilt and grief, but it keeps you from preventing something like this in your own life.
How Can We Prevent Children Being Left in Hot Cars?
This isn’t something you can do for someone else. It’s something you do for YOU. Realize, first and foremost, that no matter how amazing you are as a parent and how simple it seems to remember your child, it happens to parents just like you. Don’t take this for granted.
Whatever you do, do SOMETHING. Don’t assume it will never happen to you. Stop thinking it’s only something that happens to OTHER parents.
So What Can We Learn?
I asked my brother what he remembered about his incident of being left in the car. At three, he was on the older side of the spectrum of kids left in cars. As a fearless risk-taker, at three I probably would have figured out how to get out of the car and knocked on the woman’s door to ask what the heck she was thinking. But I don’t think I was like most kids. I think my brother’s reaction is more typical of most kids.
“Why didn’t you just get out?” I asked him.
“I couldn’t work the back door. And I simply trusted that she would come back,” my brother said. “She was an adult. A MOM. I waited because that’s what you do. The adults get you out. They always do.”
Children trust adults. We trust ourselves and other people. Sometimes too much.
In my brother’s case, there were other factors involved. The woman driving carpool, unbeknownst to the parents entrusting their children to her care, was on a heavy duty sedative for depression. She was in a fog from the medication and probably shouldn’t have been driving at all, certainly not a car full of preschoolers.
My brother recalls this chilling detail: “I remember seeing her through the window in her kitchen. Her son saw me. Our eyes met. I guess he wasn’t talking in words well yet, because he couldn’t get her to understand that I was still out there, waiting.”
I’m not sure why that one detail haunted me, but it does.
I’m so thankful for the fact that it wasn’t so hot that day, that the windows were down some, that this mom parked in the shade. It could easily have been a totally different story.
You don’t want this story to be yours. Like all of these other parents who have left children in hot cars, you have a basal ganglia and an autopilot function.
Whether you want to believe it or not, YOU have the potential to do this.
Be proactive. Make a plan. Talk to your caregivers or anyone driving your children around. Don’t assume and don’t heap judgment on parents who will forever be haunted by thinking if only.
If only I had looked in the back seat.
If only my husband had driven the kids this week.
If only I had parked in a spot where someone would have seen him in time.
If only I hadn’t gotten that distracting phone call.
If only she had been singing at the top of her lungs with the radio as usual.
Have compassion and grace for others and make a plan for yourself. I can’t say this enough. No one wants to be the person saying, “I never thought it could happen to me.”
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